Archive for the ‘SMiLE Track-by-track’ Category

SMiLE Track-By-Track X: Surf’s Up

Sunday, April 16th, 2017

It is appropriate to (re)post my Surf’s Up write-up on Easter Sunday – and a time when we all need “a children’s song.”


Surf’s Up is the centerpiece of SMiLE in many ways- close to the middle of the album and lyrically, the richest track on the album. Indeed there is so much going on lyrically that one could write a dissertation on it. Van Dykes Parks word-play reaches a new level here (“The music-hall – A costly bow/holocaust”) and the very title turns the Beach Boys early surfing roots on its’ head. We’re not playing some superficial ocean sport now, we’re diving into the very reality of human existence.

I believe this is one of the songs that lends itself to individual interpretation but the overall sense to me is someone who has lost their humanity in a superficially opulent situation (represented by the grand opera house), gets close to a breakdown (always been moved by lyrics “a broken man too tough to cry”) and then finds redemption in children and simplicity (“a children’s song”).

Brian’s music makes the song, and there is a spiritual quality to the many soaring musical phrases, and you can really sense the “teenage symphony to God” that Brian said he was trying to put together in this album. There is certainly a religious sense of redemption even although the lyric isn’t specifically spiritual, and musically this is marked by the change as we get to the “Surf’s Up” chorus with the almost wordless sense of wonder and change.

And so, the second movement of SMiLE ends in a sense of wonder, rebirth and astonishment at the cycles of life. What a ride!

SMiLE Track-By-Track IX: Child Is The Father Of The Man

Sunday, April 9th, 2017

This is a piece of music that can simply be described as beautiful. Child Is The Father Of The Man is the most classical-sounding piece on the album. Of course, it was known to many as the coda to Surf’s Up and some instrumental versions of the stand-alone song existed “unofficially”, but once again, it makes much more sense in the completed version. The brief lyrics have a postive message that fits in well with what ultimately meant to be an uplifting album.

SMiLE Track-By-Track VIII: Song For Children

Thursday, April 6th, 2017

Known to pre-February 2004 collectors as Look (and other titles), this was then an instrumental which didn’t seem to fit in with anything else on what was thought to be part of SMiLE. There was therefore a sense of an obscure looking jigsaw piece being found and fitting in beautifully, when this (officially titled as Song For Children) was played as part of the second movement of SMiLE in that famous premiere. The melody evokes possibly a children’s funfair, while the lyrics refer back to Wonderful, parenthood and childhood, giving a real sense that this was all part of a masterplan back in 1966/67. And even if it wasn’t all thought of then, it remains one of 2004, and all time’s, great creations.

SMiLE Track-By-Track VII: Wonderful

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

The second movement of SMiLE was one of those “aha” moments when four known pieces of music fitted together in a seamless sequence. Wonderful can describe the entire movement, but it is also the title of the first part- a song that was originally on the Smiley Smile album in somewhat different form. The lyrics talk to innocence, loss of innocence, birth, rebirth, childhood and parenthood -themes that repeat throughout that second movement, and that resonate with me even more strongly now with recent events in my life. The sense that SMiLE was meant as a “teenage symphony to God” also comes through strongest in this movement with references to God, believers and rebirth.

Musically, the second movement can be described as the “beautiful” movement with an emphasis on melody and classic instrumentation. Wonderful is a prime example of this -at it’s heart, it is a classic pop ballad that sticks in your head. In the wider context of all that SMiLE was and is, it becomes one of Brian Wilson’s most resonant pieces of music, and an all-time classic.

SMiLE Track-By-Track VI: Cabin Essence

Thursday, March 30th, 2017

This is the track that inspired a website..this one! Cabin Essence is a vast expanse of a song, ranging from the intimacy of the log cabin to the vastness of the Grand Coulee Dam and the truck driver travelling over a vast expanse. Again, we are looking at the growth in America; the expansion west and the industrialisation of the country. As in Heroes And Villians, there is a dichotomy between the benefits of progress and the possible lost innocence of a changing country.

As with much of Van Dykes Parks works, the lyrics work on a level of a feeling created, rather than every line making sense, and this created the famous altercation where Mike Love dismissed the line about the “crow cries uncover the cornfield” as nonsense. However, in the wider context of the song, and particularly the completed album, one can see again the sense of contrast and wide expanses being created,

Musically, the song switches between the intimate “fire mellow” section, with it’s intricate and homely melody, and the vast “who ran the iron horse?” section. It’s a powerful musical statement and a fitting close to the first section of SMiLE.

SMiLE Track-By-Track V: Old Master Painter/You Are My Sunshine

Sunday, March 26th, 2017

Another brief track in our quick sweep of Americana, and this time it is the great American songbook that Brian glides through, as we are treated to a brief instumental rendition of Old Master Painter and then a chorus of You Are My Sunshine. The song is sung in the past tense (you were my sunshine) and the overall effect is somewhat mournful; something in the past being lost?

SMiLE Track-By-Track IV: Barnyard

Thursday, March 23rd, 2017

After the expansive and thought-provoking Roll Plymouth Rock, the album lightens up as we go to the country and explore an animal Barnyard. In the Americana context, the importance of the farms is probably the link here. It’s possible that the animal noises that the band had to make may have put them off SMiLE, but in the released version and shows, Brian’s band seem to enjoy the humor in making the animal sounds.

SMiLE Track-By-Track III: Roll Plymouth Rock

Friday, March 17th, 2017

This track was commonly known to collectors (and even released on the Beach Boys box set) as Do You Like Worms?, which possibly gave an indication to outsiders of SMiLE’s weirdness. The bits and pieces that came out on the box set and “unofficial” releases also seemed incomplete; part of intriguing puzzle. But it all came together on the 2004 release under the more “palatable” title of Roll Plymouth Rock.

As with many things related to Van Dyke Parks, there are a million things happening at once, but the major themes seems to be exploring America, colonization and possibly a loss of innocence. As with many things on SMiLE, there are sections and sub-sections, including the famous Bicycle Rider chorus and the “Hawaii” chorus which is insanely catchy and, like much of SMiLE, imprints itself on your brain permanently.

SMiLE Track-By-Track II: Heroes And Villains

Saturday, March 11th, 2017

This is what I wrote eight years ago in the original track by track for SMiLE. In 2017, it may be good reminding ourselves that the heroes do win in the end…

This was the song that confused and amazed; as the Beach Boys first single after the worldwide super-smash, Good Vibrations, it didn’t light up the charts and led a general chart decline in the late 60s. And although 1967 was a pretty much “anything goes” year, the seeming barbershop psychedelia of Heroes And Villains didn’t catch on in the summer of love.

Of course, a book could be written about this song, which is the centerpiece of the first suite of SMiLE, often referred to as the Americana section. There were many different sections, some of which became parts of other songs, some left out altogether. The “In The Cantina” section, which is restored to the released SMiLE version gives this song a distinct wild west feel and also adds to the “humor” which was one of the intentions of SMiLE.

But the key theme of the song is duality -there is complexity as well as simplicity in the song, light as well as darkness. SMiLe expands the seeming narrow theme of young adult love of Pet Sounds to a wide portrait of life from birth to death, America from Hawaii to Plymouth Rock. And in this life, there are heroes and villains and many of us may have this duality within ourselves. In the end, we are thankful that the ultimate musical hero, Brian Wilson conquered the villain of his demons and came out with the completed SMiLE. Yes, the heroes win in the end.

SMiLE Track-By-Track I: Our Prayer/Gee

Saturday, March 4th, 2017

In further celebration of the 50th anniversary of when SMiLE was originally planned to be released, I’m going to do a reboot of the track-by-track (based on Brian’s 2004 released version).

The opening of SMiLE immediately suggests we are doing something very different to Pet Sounds. While Pet Sounds hinted indirectly at spirituality (God Only Knows coming closest), Our Prayer starts as a direct invocation to a higher force and inspiration -those ascending notes immediately taking us to a place that can only be called spiritual, however we interpret that term.

And then we are taken back to earth and teenage emotions, as Brian opens the great American songbook with an excerpt of Gee (how I love that girl). SMiLE has been playing for just over a minute, and we can already see a wide canvas of American life.